Writing has historically been a powerful tool of self-expression for those in prison. The written word has also influenced our perceptions of criminality and the penal system, through journalism, television drama or crime fiction. Drawing on this intimate relationship between writing and the prison experience, researchers at LJMU have used the written word to impact positively on the lives of prisoners, influence prison-education practice and contribute to public debate around justice and criminality.
With initial funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, researchers on the Free to Write project drew from hands-on work with prison and probation services in order to develop, deliver and assess writing projects, produce workbooks and publish inmates’ writing.
This resulted in the publication of ‘Free to Write: Prison Voices Past and Present’ (edited by Dr Gareth Creer, Dr Hannah Priest and Dr Tamsin Spargo), an anthology which combined both research articles about prisoners and original, creative work by inmates to become an invaluable resource for educators and prisoners. One prisoner at HMP Bure in Norwich wrote to the editors, commenting that he was ‘deeply inspired by the research essays’ and the ‘true reflections’ of stages of prisoners’ lives. The volume has inspired him to collect writing by other prisoners and he has given the copy in his prison library a five-star recommendation.
The anthology was distributed to over 100 UK prisons, probation hostels and agencies, to 25 British universities and to a range of practitioners in the field such as those involved with the Writers in Prisons Network.
Rod Clarke, Chief Executive of Prisoners Education Trust, commented: “Taken collectively, the power and strength of the individual voices combine to testify to the book’s central message about the importance of letting those voices emerge.”
Drawing on his engagement with the Free to Write project, between 2009 and 2013 Dr Creer published (under the pseudonym Adam Creed) a series of five crime novels which explored the nature of offending. As well as appearing at crime fiction’s most important conference, the Harrogate Crime Festival (30,000 attendees), Dr Creer spoke at numerous other literary festivals.
LJMU researchers have also contributed to a range of conferences, particularly targeting those involving prison service practitioners. Both Dr Helen Rogers and Dr Aileen La Tourette spoke at ‘Reading and Writing in Prison’ at Napier University, and continue to engage with online debate about prisoners and about prison history. Dr Rogers writes about prisoners learning to read and write in her blog ‘Conviction: Stories from a nineteenth century prison.’ www.convictionblog.com
The Free to Write project was highlighted as an area of excellence in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF).